California’s Confused Welfare Ethics

The Los Angeles Times has been running a series of stories detailing how many California welfare recipients have been using their state-issued welfare debit cards (which take money directly out of state coffers) at casino ATM’s. The millions of dollars in taxpayer money dispensed to eager, if poor, gamblers produced predictable outrage, and the state responded by blocking use of the cards at over 200 ATM’s and revising the pledge signed by welfare recipients to require them to only use the assistance to “meet the basic subsistence needs” of their families.

The outrage is misplaced, and the remedial measures are symbolic at best. What stops a recipient from taking cash out of another ATM, and then spending it at a casino? Or a strip club? Or a bar? The illusion that the a state can give cash to people who, in many cases, are in the financial straits they are because of poor, self-destructive or short-sighted choices and priorities and expect those individuals not to continue their pattern of behavior in spending the money is beyond naive.

The state is worse than naive, however. It is hypocritical. California has a state lottery that it advertises heavily, knowing well, for it is well-documented, that the heaviest users are those close to the poverty line. It encourages and profits from legalized gambling that victimizes the most vulnerable, then reacts with horror that welfare recipients, conditioned by the state to regard gambling with their scarce resources as acceptable conduct, use their welfare money in state licensed casinos.

Next, California compounds its contradictory messages by telling its welfare recipients how to spend their money. What is a “basic subsistence need”? Would using the welfare money to attend a concert—to feed the soul–be a violation of the pledge? Would buying a new suit be a violation? If it was for a job interview? If it was just to make the welfare recipient feel better about himself? How about buying a gift for his child? Is that “subsistence”? What if the child is sick? Buying a drink, if one is an alcoholic, is a basic need. Is the California saying that drunks can buy liquor with welfare money, but others can’t?

Suppose the welfare recipient is, in fact, a retired professional poker player, who generally wins. The casino withdrawal is  a stake for him, and one that he is likely to parlay into a profit. What is wrong with him doing that? If he wins big, he may be able to get off the welfare rolls.

If California wants to limit its assistance to food, it should go back to issuing food stamps. Attempting to dictate the values, needs and life decisions of welfare recipients, however, is an abuse of power, as well as being disrespectful and arrogant. Give them the money, and let them decide how best to spend it, or don’t give them the money.

California, after all, is broke too. What qualifies Arnold Schwarzenegger to dictate how citizens should use their money?

4 thoughts on “California’s Confused Welfare Ethics

  1. There wasn’t such abuse of the welfare system when basic foodstuffs were administered from a central storage facility. You could know that the purpose of public assistance was being carried out. It’s much simpler to just dispense paper statements with dollar limits, or, simpler yet, to produce plastic ATM cards. My suspicion is that the fraud and corruption with the latter would far outweigh the additional costs and burdens of providing provisions directly. Better yet, have the community based programs, Salvation Army, churches etc raise the money in lieu of taxation. At that micro-level, the fraudsters can be weeded out when presenting themselves to those in their neighborhoods who know their real circumstances. As it is, we experience all the wastefulness and destruction of incentive that are characteristic of the welfare state.

    • I’m not convinced this is welfare fraud or even abuse. It’s just an incoherent, brain-dead, wasteful, counter-productive social policy by a state that has more than its share of them.

  2. To be sure, the state’s social policy leaves much to be desired, as you say, but the circumstances here, in which funds are spent on other than their intended use, are common in all states, I believe. The whole idea of providing enough for subsistence only (and not casino money, concert money, liquor, even suits) is to attempt to preserve the physical health in which the individual’s incentive could be reasonably maintained to improve his own conditions. Multiple generations of dependency have appeared, encouraged by the current system, in which cleverness is put to use in trying to extract the most resources under the rules provided instead of toward useful work and employability. It has only exacerbated the spread of “entitlement” mentality, which is the root cause of our society’s imminent demise. Years of experience with Medicaid recipients, for those who have worked with them, have taught this lesson well, and perhaps in the legal arena, it would be experience as a public defender. Until there is some way to create true self-worth, it’s not going to change under the current system.

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